Showdown time in Venezuela

Hugo Chávez faces a test of his own devising as Venezuelans are given the opportunity to endorse or end his presidency.

August 1, 2004
4 min read


Pablo NavarretePablo Navarrete is a British-Chilean journalist and documentary filmmaker. He is the founder of www.alborada.net and a correspondent for the Latin America Bureau (LAB)

The political crisis in Venezuela seems to be heading for a crucial showdown after the country’s National Electoral Council (CNE) announced that the opposition had collected enough signatures to force a recall referendum on the rule of president Hugo Chávez.

The CNE set the date for the referendum as 15 August. The council’s vice-president, Ezequiel Zamora, who is accused by many of sympathising with the opposition, said that elections would follow in 30 days if Chávez lost. Were the referendum to take place after 19 August, and if Chávez did lose, Venezuelan vice-president José Vincente Rangel would take over without holding new elections.

Chávez addressed the nation, accepting the CNE’s preliminary results and congratulating the opposition for finding a democratic and constitutional way to try to oust him. His opponents, who accuse him of everything from insanity to being a Castro-style communist dictator, have already attempted to remove him from power by means of an unsuccessful coup in April 2002 and a two-month general strike in December 2002.

The Venezuelan constitution, passed into law by referendum in December 1999, emphasises participation at all levels and incorporates a series of articles that enable ordinary citizens to have a direct influence over public affairs. Crucially, article 72 states that “all elected posts”, from the president down, can be subjected to a recall referendum after officials reach the midway point of their term in office. This point was reached by Chávez on 19 August 2003.

It is ironic that the opposition has turned to Chávez’s new constitution in its latest strategy to bring down his government, given that in the past it has labelled the framework undemocratic. Meanwhile, international observers from the Organization of American States and the human rights organisation the Carter Center congratulated Venezuelans for exercising their democratic rights. The run-up to the referendum promises to be a real test for the opposition’s democratic credentials.

The process of gathering the required signatures to trigger this referendum has been an explosive saga in itself, lasting almost a year. When 3.4 million signatures were handed in by the opposition in November 2003, the government contested the veracity of a large proportion of them, complaining that many had been obtained through fraud such as the inclusion of deceased people.

At the time Chávez called the whole process a “mega fraude”. The CNE validated only 1.9 million signatures, and required the owners of those disputed to confirm their support for the referendum. In the end, according to the latest results released by the CNE, the opposition was able to validate only 2,451,821 signatures – about a million less than it had originally submitted.

For the opposition to win the referendum it must achieve more votes against Chávez than those obtained by him when he was elected president in December 1998. Then, Chávez swept the traditional parties out of office with 3,750,000 votes – 56 per cent of the total.

Thus, in the referendum this August, the opposition will need to obtain more than a million extra votes to defeat Chávez through the ballot box. This appears unlikely, given the popularity of Chávez among the poor, who make up more than 80 per cent of the Venezuelan population.

Among the many charges directed at Chávez by his opponents, both domestic and international, is that his government is undemocratic. It is hard, however, to imagine Tony Blair or George Bush agreeing to a similar referendum half way through their time in office – a time when governments are usually at their least popular.

US hypocrisy in this respect is brought into sharp focus by the recent revelation that the National Endowment for Democracy (funded by the US Congress) provided close to $1m to fund opposition groups in the months before Venezuela’s failed coup of April 2002. The US’s contempt for democracy in the region is nothing new for Latin Americans, as Chileans, Nicaraguans, Guatemalans, Haitians, Grenadians and Brazilians can readily testify.

Even if Chávez were to win the referendum, it would be wrong to assume that the opposition will accept the result and allow him to conclude his term in office. Past experience in Latin America, as with Allende’s Chile in 1973, suggests that right-wing elites will use legal or illegal means to overthrow a government that threatens their privileges.

Domestically, a high level of responsibility will have to be shown by both sides to prevent an incendiary political situation from turning into full-scale civil war in Venezuela. Foreign intervention in the internal affairs of the country should be actively opposed by people throughout the world in order to prevent it joining the long list of Latin American governments deposed through US-sponsored military action.


Pablo NavarretePablo Navarrete is a British-Chilean journalist and documentary filmmaker. He is the founder of www.alborada.net and a correspondent for the Latin America Bureau (LAB)


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History

Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.

A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas

Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'

The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.

Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.

Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism

What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry

Airport expansion is a racist policy
Climate change is a colonial crisis, writes Jo Ram

Momentum Kids: the parental is political
Momentum Kids is not about indoctrinating children, but rather the more radical idea that children have an important role to play in shaping the future, writes Kristen Hope

New Cross fights new wave of housing privatisation
Lewisham residents object to a new trend in local authority housing developments

Stand-off with prison profiteers at the Tower of London
Marienna Pope-Weidemann reports on disruption at the European Custody and Detention Summit